Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Kicking Ass On & Off Stage

The Delicate Flower Holds Her Own

© 2007 Leighann Lord

If anyone finds it shocking that I would participate in a mixed martial arts tournament, join the club. In high school I hated gym class and openly disdained organized sports. Sweating in public? How undignified. I’ve never even been in a fight. I was the geeky kid who learned to avoid physical confrontations through diplomacy, humor, quick thinking and fast talking. I also learned to read a situation, and to get gone while the getting was good. I never even stuck around to watch a fight. Why would I? It's the innocent bystanders who get hurt. So a fight, on purpose, is way outside my comfort zone.

Even with the extra training I put in, (see "I Love the Smell of Icy Hot in the Morning") I learned – day of – there are a few things you can’t prepare for, like the boredom of waiting around. My first match, scheduled for 3:15pm, didn't begin until after 6pm. There wasn't much for anyone to do but watch the other matches, chat with friends and surreptitiously size up the competition.

Actually, the latter wasn’t very subtle. The reckless eyeballing was intense and flagrant. If I had a dollar for every woman I caught boldly accessing my age and weight, I could pay off my Visa bill. Okay maybe not the whole bill, but at least the minimum monthly payment.

I think this explains why there are fewer women competitors than men. A woman's weight is as sacred as her age and lifetime number of sexual partners. While it’s standard practice to get weighed before you fight, I believe most women would fight not to get weighed.

That's the other thing I wasn't really prepared for: fighting with strangers. Although The Challenge of Champions is an intramural tournament between the 40+ martial schools within one organization, you tend to know only the folks at your own school. You get so used to training and fighting with your friends, the idea of fighting strangers seems down right weird.

When my first match in submission grappling finally began it was relatively short. You’re supposed to be equally matched but after the referee said, "Go!" I quickly realized that while my opponent may have been a brown belt, she handled herself like a third degree black belt.

She got the take down and I got her in my guard with a guillotine choke. She swiftly worked out my guard and got a very tight side mount. If this sounds a little too technical, let me simplify: she was winning. I would have congratulated her superb technique, but I was too busy trying to breathe.

I was also in a catch 22. I was afraid to let go of her head, thinking she’d used the opportunity to get a full submission on me. But by not letting go I could not improve my position either. And so the match ended in a stale mate. I didn’t tap out (yea!) but she won the match on points and position.

And just like that it was over. All that training and I was knocked out of the box in three minutes. I felt terrible. My fellow class mates all hugged and congratulated me. My husband was proud too, although he kept casting menacing looks at my opponent. I, however, felt like a loser. It was like inviting everyone to come see me at a comedy show and bombing miserably.

I packed up my stuff and moved on to my next match: Kick Boxing. Oh great. Let me explain. Back in September I began testing for my brown belt. One of the things I was weak in was free sparring. No brown belt for me until I measurably improved my skills. Since I was already going to tournament training for grappling, I asked my Sensei if I could come for kick boxing as well. He said, "Yes," and added, "I think you should kick box in the tournament."

And here is where I began questioning his sanity. Why would he suggest I sign up to compete in a sport I wasn’t very good in? To me the answer was an unequivocal, "Hell no!" But as the weeks of training went by, and I saw improvement, my confidence grew. And with an equal mixture of "What the hell am I am doing?" and "Oh what the hell!" I signed up to compete in kick boxing on the very last day of registration.

So now it was with a heavy heart and a head full of doubt that dragged myself off to the next match. If I couldn’t do well in grappling, my supposed strong suit, how was I going to fare in an area where I needed the most work? To compound matters, I learned that the woman who just beat me and went on to win third place in grappling – a United States Marine – was going to be my opponent, again. Check please.

At this point I held onto one fragment of hope: that someone who was so good at grappling, might not be as good in kick boxing. Silly in retrospect, but it kept me from running out of the arena, into the car and off to the nearest Dunkin Donuts to drown my sorrow in a white hot chocolate.

In the ring, we bowed to each other, touched gloves and began the fight. All the training and advice of the last six weeks swirled through my head like an unending mantra:

"Elbows in... keep your head down... breathe... put your whole body into the punch... turn into it... breathe... open them up down the center with straight punches.... on the inside use body punches... start a combination with a punch, end with a kick... start with a kick, end with a punch... breathe... work combinations... look for an opening... don’t let a punch or kick go unanswered.... it’s never the other person’s ‘turn’ to hit... breathe..."
At the end of the two minute round, the referee separated us, turned to the judges, and raised the hand of the winner. He raised my hand. I was so stunned that the ref looked at the judges again to make sure he had ruled correctly. He did. "Oh my god, I won... the first round."

For some crazy reason I didn’t realize that winning one match doesn’t mean it’s over. You have to keep competing. I had exactly two minutes to catch my breath and fight the winner of the next match. Oh goody. I fought two more times and earned SECOND PLACE! "Hell yea!" Maybe my Sensei's not so crazy after all.

I’ve never been so exhausted and happy in my life. I felt exhilarated and proud, and vaguely grateful that nothing was broken or torn. The icing on the cake was when my husband hugged me tight and whispered sweetly in my ear, "Damn, Baby, you throw an upper cut like a man."

Afterwards, he treated me to quiet dinner at one of our favorite Italian restaurants. I don’t know when carbs ever tasted so good. And for a night cap, that sweet elixir of champions: the Dunkin Donuts white hot chocolate.

In the end I earned a pretty little plaque, a slightly larger comfort zone, and – at last - my brown belt! (For you long time blog readers who remember my post "The Yellow Belt Blues" let me assure you that yes I have brown hand wraps to match.)

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